January 2022

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


M. W. CRAVEN – The Puppet Show. Constable, UK, hardcover, June 2018; paperback, 2019. Washington Poe/Tilly Bradshaw #1. Setting: Cumbria, Lake District. Winner of the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the year.

First Sentence: The stone circle is an ancient, tranquil place.

   Serial killer, the “Immolation Man,” leaves the remains of each victim within one of the stone circles of Cumbria. Each victim is an elderly man who has been disfigured and burned; no other connection has been found. What sets the latest killing apart is that Poe’s name has been carved in the victim’s chest.

   Director of Intelligence Edward van Zel has lifted Detective Washington Poe’s suspension from the Serious Crimes Unit, but has made DI Stephanie Flynn the new head of the National Crime Agency (NCA), Poe’s old post. Tilly Bradshaw has a personality disorder, lives with her mother, never leaves the office, is bullied by others, and is a brilliant data analyst assigned to work with Poe. The challenge is for Poe and Tilly to stop the “Immolation Man” before he kills again, and again.

   Readers: Be warned — this book is dark, with descriptions and themes that become increasingly so as the story progresses.

   Craven begins by turning a place usually thought of as magical, into one of fear and horror, constantly increasing the tension throughout very well-timed plot twists and a red-herring or two. The fascinating forensic and analytic work described moves the story forward at a breath-catching clip. Craven’s writing is compelling. Even at the darkest parts, one never wants to stop. There is always that sense of wanting to know more; seeing where the path lead; whether will justice be done, and even questioning what constitutes justice.

   What truly makes this book work is the characters. Yes, they are rather stereotypical, but one doesn’t care. Poe, the rule-breaker with a soft heart, will do whatever it takes to solve the case. Tilly, the brilliant, clever, possibly autistic sidekick, is genuinely appreciated for the first time in her career, is given a chance to spread her wings and show her talents. As a team, they are quirky, delightful, and you cheer for them every step of the way.

   The trail Craven lays for Poe and Tilly to follow is fascinating, wonderfully atmospheric, and exciting. It is filled with a plethora of interesting information along the way. It includes a side path with the history of Poe’s name which one assumes with have more relevance later in the series. One small point: a glossary of all the acronyms would have been helpful.

   The Puppet Show is dark, twisty, suspenseful, filled with great characters, and one of the most gratifying endings of late. However, the best part is knowing there are for Poe and Tilly books yet to be read.

Rating: Excellent.


      The Washington Poe & Tilly Bradshaw series

The Puppet Show (2018)
Black Summer (2019)
The Curator (2020)
Cut Short (collection, 2020)
Dead Ground (2021)
The Botanist (2022)
The Cutting Season (novella, 2022)

VICTOR MAXWELL “The Plainly Marked Track.” Sgt. Reardon #1. Novelette. First published in Flynn’s, 8 August 1925. Collected in Threads of Evidence: The Complete Cases of Riordan, Volume 1 (Steeger Books, 2021; introduction by Terry Sanford).

   The genesis of the Steeger collection is both straightforward and complicated. It began with an essay on the primary Mystery*File website by Terry Sanford, a former bookstore owner and present day dedicated pulp magazine collector. In that short piece he discussed several of the series characters who filled the pages of [Flynn’s] Detective Fiction Weekly in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the early 1940s. One of these was a Detective Sergeant named Riordan who appeared in exactly 100 stories over the years.

   The byline on these stories was Victor Maxwell, but it was generally suspected that that was a pen name. Who the real author was was unknown. But then something unsuspected happened. I was contacted by Don Wilde, who told me that he was the step-grandson of the author of the Riordan stories, whose real name was Maxwell Vietor.

   I immediately got Don in touch with Terry, and I’ll let Terry tell the tale from here. Or in fact he already has. (Follow the link, and you will learn all.)

   It may suffice to say, however, that Terry received a load of information and other documents about “Victor Maxwell” and his long life, and he decided to see if some enterprising young publisher might be interested in reprinting some of the stories. Matt Moring of Steeger Books agreed. It’s now ten years later, and the first volume of the first nine Riordan stories has just been published.

   Based on the first story only, you can’t judge the growth and other changes in a series that may take place over a span of some fifteen years, so any description I make of it here, please don’t take it any further than that. Riordan is mentored in this one by a Captain Brady, his boss, who often seems to wonder about how slow he   is on the uptake. When the safe at Ladd’s Emporium is robbed on a Saturday night, the tightwad owner thinks his son is responsible. A plaster cast of a tire track discovered at the scene helps prove otherwise.

   What’s most noticeable about the story is how cool and calm the policemen on the job go about their business. They may have have had all of the CSI stuff cops have today, but working with what they had – and knowing people – goes a long way in cracking the case. I’ll see about tackling the other eight stories in this volume as soon as I can. I’m also hoping that enough people buy this one so that it doesn’t take another ten years before we see the second!



HUE AND CRY. Ealing Studios, UK, 1947. Fine Arts Films, US, 1951. Alistair Sim, Harry Fowler, Valerie White, Jack Warner, Paul Demel, and a mess of kids. Written by T.E.B. Clark. Directed by Charles Crichton.

   Very uneven in tone, and all the better for it.

   After defeating the Axis, post-war England faced a very different problem. Thousands of children, left with single parents, and largely unsupervised, roamed the bombed-out city, doing what kids do: playing in the ruins, getting in trouble of all sorts, looking for fun or maybe just the Better World their parents fought and sometimes died for.

   This is the unlikely backdrop for T. E. B. Clark’s tale of mystery and adventure, and it’s a credit to all concerned that Hue and Cry neither shrinks from nor pontificates on the pervasive squalor. Rather, the filmmakers accept it as a fact of life — much as the children do — and go on about telling a ripping yarn.

   The plot hangs on the notion that kids of all ages, as the saying goes, are hooked on reading the adventures of Detective Selwyn Pike in a post-war penny-dreadful titled Trump (The mind reels with clever comments, all regretfully omitted.) until a lad in his late teens (Harry Fowler, awkward, charmless, and perfect for the part.) finds a correlation between incidents in the weekly episodes and a real-life crime wave. Someone is sending coded messages inside the stories!

   Duly inspired by Detective Pike’s example, Fowler and friends set out to catch the criminals, and it’s Buddies vs Baddies — with some surprisingly grim moments tossed in among the general merriment.

   Top-billed Alistair Sim shows up for about five minutes of screen time as the timorous author of the stories, a part that suits him so well I really wish writer Clark had given him something funny to say.

   But it’s the minors who carry this thing anyway, in scenes that lurch from kiddie stuff — like forcing a confession from a hard-boiled dame by scaring her with a mouse — to grim moments fleeing in a swampy sewer, then stalking and being stalked through a bombed-out tenement.

   It all culminates in an all-out attack by the kids on the crooks — later borrowed for The Good Humor Man (1950) —  as the children of the city descend upon the racketeers in a pitched and well-choreographed battle, intercut with moments of grim suspense as our boy-hero struggles with the master criminal in a tottering ruin that exemplifies the post-war disorder perfectly.

   But there’s a moment that will stay with me even longer than all this. Just a scene of children playing, and one of them, perched atop pile of rubble, gleefully, endlessly, aping the sound of bombs dropping.


by Francis M. Nevins


   Happy New Year! Over the nearly two decades I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve always tried to make sure I knew what I was talking about. This time I know very little about my subject, but no one else seems to know more.

   Recently I found myself getting interested in an over sixty year old TV detective series which, when it was running, I never watched. Nor, it seems, did the overwhelming majority of Americans. THE INVESTIGATORS aired on CBS from early October till late December of 1961, a total of thirteen 60-minute episodes. James Franciscus, James Philbrook and Mary Murphy starred as three detectives specializing in insurance cases. Most episodes featured one well-known movie star — Claire Trevor, Miriam Hopkins, Jane Wyman and Mickey Rooney, just to name four.

   The Internet Movie Database provides cast lists for each episode but no plot summaries, which I dug out from my TV Guide collection. What mainly sparked my interest was that, according to the IMDb, every one of the thirteen hour-long episodes was directed by the same man, whom I happened to know well and who in fact was the subject of one of my books.

   The director in question was Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), on whose boat the Buena Vista I taped the conversations that became the raw material for the only book about him published in his lifetime. In 1937, after a few years as a film editor, Joe had become a director and made some superb 60-minute Westerns, usually starring Bill Elliott, Charles Starrett or Johnny Mack Brown, each of them brimming with visual excitement; pictures that earned him the moniker of “Wagon Wheel Joe,” thanks to his habit of shooting scenes through the spokes of guess what.

   After World War II he became involved with what would soon become known as film noir, helming pictures like MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946) and, best known of all, the classics GUN CRAZY (1949) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

   In the early 1950s he suffered a major heart attack and was unable to work for a year. Near the end of that decade he moved from the big screen to the small, signing a generous long-term contract with Four Star, one of the top TV series production companies, whose executives wanted him to concentrate on THE RIFLEMAN (ABC, 1958-63), the iconic Western series created by Sam Peckinpah and starring Chuck Connors.

   â€œThey wanted me to direct every show in the series. I said ‘Hell no, I won’t do that!’” The compromise they reached was that he’d work one week a month preparing and shooting an episode of THE RIFLEMAN or some other Four Star series. The rest of the time he’d relax on his boat. Under this arrangement he helmed 51 RIFLEMAN episodes over five years, plus two segments of THE DETECTIVES (ABC, 1958-61; NBC, 1961-62), a cop show starring Robert Taylor, and one story for Four Star’s anthology series ALCOA THEATRE.

   There’s no question that, on loan-out from Four Star, he did some work on THE INVESTIGATORS. “I wanted to do a close-up shot of [James] Franciscus’s hands,” Joe told me, “and I couldn’t do it because of the awful way his fingernails looked. He was a nail-biter.” But would he have agreed to direct an hour-long episode every week when just three years earlier his heart attack had led him to refuse to do more than one 30-minute show a month? In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle, not bloody likely.

   If only we could check the credits on the 13 episodes of THE INVESTIGATORS, we’d know who directed them, but we can’t. Apparently the only segment that survives is “The Oracle” (12 October 1961), guest-starring Lee Marvin as a religious cult leader, which exists only in a truncated form, minus credits.

   But from what I’ve dug up it seems to have been an interesting little series. Its main claim to historical importance is that one of the three protagonists, played by Mary Murphy, was apparently the first licensed female PI character to star in a TV series.

   For devotees of Cornell Woolrich a further attraction is that two episodes seem to be rooted in the work of that dark angel of suspense. In “I Thee Kill” (26 October 1961) the investigators set out to clear a man (Mickey Rooney) who was in the crowd outside a church when the fellow who was about to marry the suspect’s girlfriend was shot dead. Doesn’t that sound just a bit like a variant on Woolrich’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK?

   More clearly borrowed from a Woolrich premise is “Death Leaves a Tip” (30 November 1961), in which Franciscus and Murphy recruit a shy young waitress to serve as bait to trap a serial killer who’s preying on members of her profession. Unmistakably this is Woolrich’s 1938 classic “Dime a Dance,” also known as “The Dancing Detective,” with a different female job specialty. The guest star in this one was Jane Wyman, one of whose earliest credited movie roles was as the female lead in THE SPY RING (1938), an espionage drama directed by (can you guess?) Joseph H. Lewis, but this is hardly evidence that Joe helmed her episode of THE INVESTIGATORS.

   I touched base with an old friend who has one of the world’s largest collections of TV episodes from the Fifties and Sixties on video and he told me he had never even heard of THE INVESTIGATORS. I exchanged emails with a man whose biography of Joe Lewis will probably be published this year and he knew nothing more about the series than I did. Dead end. Game over. Case closed.


   I had hoped that this column would take me on a voyage of discovery that I could share, but the ship seems to have gotten itself grounded. Luckily I made another discovery late last year, and this is a genuine find. While fumbling around YouTube I came across a composition by my beloved Bernard Herrmann that I’d never heard before, a very early piece written when he was around 22 and never published or performed until after his death.

   What’s most fascinating about his Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1936) is that it sounds very much as if it were a 15-minute excerpt from his score for PSYCHO, a quarter century later, that Hitchcock never used. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No one does ominous like Herrmann does ominous. Check out the Sinfonietta and hear for yourself:

E. X. FERRARS – Experiment with Death. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1981, as by Elizabeth Ferrars. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1981. Bantam, US, paperback, 1982.

   A rough count I just made of the detective novels written by E. X. Ferrars came to over 70 of them, written between 1940 and 1995. I’ve sampled only a few of them, so it’s not possible for me even start to generalize, but off the top of my head, I’d say that of all of the authors over the years who’ve been compared to Agatha Christie in terms of cluing and twisty fair-play endings, Ferrars comes the closest.

   A number of her book have series characters; unfortunately none of them are very memorable and that doesn’t help in keeping her name alive among mystery fans, even those who are well read. If you were to ask me about mystery writers whose work ought to be reprinted in a uniform series of books, I’d say she should be at the top of list, rather than obscure writers whose books have been so done,  but whose books aren’t nearly as satisfying.

   Experiment in Death is a standalone, and it’s a good one. It takes place in a pseudo-academic setting, which is to say a research institute whose specialty is the study of apples. There are no students involved, that is to say, but the usual petty grievances and jealousies that always seem to exist in academic-oriented mysteries are very much in play.

   Dead is the director of the facility. He wasn’t unliked, but he seemed always to find pleasure in pitting faculty members against each other. Doing most of the detective work is the middle-aged Dr. Emma Ritchie, and even though she never seems to have ever run across a case of murder again, she does good work here, in a situation where alibis are crucial, as well a timetable consisting of statements of who was where when.

   Complimenting matters is the fact that the time had been changed on many of the clocks found in rooms along the hallway where the dead man had his office. I love mysteries involving complications such as this. It doesn’t hurt that all of the characters with motives are real people with real fears and real concerns. I consider that as the bonus it so very much is, and you should too.

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